A long while ago now, when I was just a toddler and thought the world a more serious place than I do now – I was perhaps four or five years old – some of the most memorable times in my life involved getting ready to ‘do work’ with my Dad. The invitation to assist on some essential household maintenance or new project in the garden was something I took very seriously indeed. I had to spend time preparing, of course, and applied great concentration in pulling on my work clothes, rolling-up shirt sleeves, tying shoelaces on my boots and generally getting into the frame of mind required when one is about to undertake an important task.
I recall more about the effort I applied to getting ready than I do about any of the jobs we actually completed together; my Dad had shown me great respect in seeking my help and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t let him down. Looking back through the years though I’m certain that none of the bent nails were of much use – using a hammer with two hands isn’t easy, after all – and I suspect he secretly disposed of the little pieces of wood I was given to saw. Nonetheless, it was always job well done; I was pleased to know that he couldn’t have finished the work without my help and, in return, he assured me that he’d continue to ‘teach me the tricks of the trade’ as I grew older. He did, too. He was a remarkably good craftsman and what I learnt from him continues to serve me well – a legacy more far-reaching than he would have imagined, looking down at the serious little boy beside him.
In the past few months I’ve agonised as I’ve watched him leave piece by piece, as first his mind and then his body failed him. After his funeral last week the tools that he handled with such ease and dexterity, some of which remain too heavy to use comfortably, passed to me. And so did his now dilapidated shed, his deserted greenhouse and the postage-stamp of a garden where we worked together in quiet companionship all those years ago.
He’d told me then that one day it would all be mine and now that it is, the only thing that matters is that he won’t ask me to help him ‘do work’ again.
I had hoped to see a little more support for a ‘yes’ in the referendum on AV and with it, by implication, a glimmer of hope that election of our representatives would more accurately reflect opinion across a constituency. The expected result disappointed me but, truth be told, I wasn’t in the least surprised by the overwhelming kick in the nuts that our increasingly apathetic and bamboozled electorate delivered. The AV proposal on offer certainly wasn’t the best solution but it would, if nothing else, have unsettled the many politicians who see a seat at Westminster as a personal opportunity and not an obligation. It wasn’t to be and the possibilities of electoral reform being raised again in meaningful debate are too far into the future to contemplate.
Of all the constituencies in UK only ten out of about 500 delivered ‘yes’ votes [and of those only Cambridge is held by the Liberal Democrats] yet everyone I spoke to about AV seemed to have no idea how it would work, why it was being proposed and what the consequences of its being adopted would be. So what were people voting for or against? Of course, a clear, sophisticated and political ‘no’ campaign, supported by an increasingly well-liked Prime Minister, provided gentle guidance even if it was a little disingenuous. But then, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? Well, if you were advocating AV it would seem not; the ‘yes’ campaign, bespattered as it was with celebrities, seemed naïve, unclear and, eventually, whining. I heard more about how unfair the Conservatives were than about how AV was the important first step on the road to proportional representation. That old duffer Vince Cable has now described the Conservatives as ‘ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal’. Er, yes – perhaps realising that some while ago would have given your campaign more impetus, dummy. He has gone on to say that ‘you have to be businesslike and professional and you have to work with people who aren’t your natural bedfellows and that is being grown-up in politics’. Quite – so how dumb was Nick Clegg to describe the proposal as a ‘miserable little compromise’ at the start of the campaign? Badly wounded, he now appears less than capable as a senior politician and out of his depth, so one wonders, with this significant concession of the coalition behind him, whether his firmly held pre-election ideals can be transformed into political influence.
As for me, knowing that my MP’s safe seat is even safer, I’ll be checking to see if he’s using his secretarial allowance to resurface his driveway during this parliament.
I’ve made plans to be in the pub tomorrow. Like a lot of guys I’ve about had it with the wedding, royals, dresses, silly radio fillers, pointless TV features, who’s invited, who’s not going, how many police will be on duty and which personalities will lead me through the occasion so as to ensure that I don’t miss a single nuance of this, their special day. I wish them well and on face value they appear a very pleasant couple worthy of all our best wishes and I don’t envy them moving into a world where a royal heritage is increasingly irrelevant and where their life will be lived, not through the pages of Burke’s Peerage, but in the colour specials and superlatives of Hello and OK! magazines.
But in the build-up to the day our public consciousness has lost its sense of priority; at a time when innocent and peaceful protestors are being killed in the Middle East the plethora of coverage across the media – there are estimated to be 12000 journalists in London tonight – troubles me as demonstrating a further lurch towards the trite and the superficial. After all, the wedding tomorrow is not really about the royal family or a public celebration of the monarchy. It’s not even about a couple of young people who want to share a life together, is it? It’s about celebrity. Crowds are literally camping along the route to Westminster Abbey and teenagers and mothers alike are screaming at every glimpse of William, Kate or Harry, as they would a sighting of George Clooney. Rather than an upwelling of public support for the royal family the occasion is a fan-fest that has the feeling of Oscar night. I can’t wait for one of those journalists to ask the flag-wavers for their views on constitutional monarchy or the debate about succession. As I write this the BBC is whining on – in suitably reverent tones – about the people’s love for this wonderful young man and his bride as well as the event that ‘the world has been waiting for’. I’m not certain that’s the case at all and wonder how many are waiting for it in the coffee shops of Syria or Bahrain.
I’m still fairly ambivalent about keeping a royal family, mostly because I don’t hold strong views on why it should be abolished rather than being against it on principle. But I know others feel more strongly and, by the time Prince William takes the throne, we might watch his accession courtesy of Visa and have to suffer Ryan Seacrest as host. The wedding tomorrow further dilutes the royal line; Kate Middleton is truly a people’s princess as, regrettably, she has no royal genes. Perception, however, is being addressed; already a massive publicity machine has worked to have her known as Catherine and tomorrow she will lose that moniker altogether to become Princess William of Wales*, would you believe. In addition the College of Arms has outlined approval of a Middleton coat of arms. She has been able to use it until tomorrow, after which it will be combined with that of Prince William. It comprises three acorn sprigs, a gold chevron, tied ribbon and white chevronels. And very nice too, you might think. This nonsense was justified by the Garter Principal King of Arms, who has explained that the oak tree was a traditional symbol of England and a feature of west Berkshire, where the family has lived for 30 years. I guess it’s a relief that they hadn’t lived in agricultural Bedfordshire or we’d have expected to see sprigs of cabbage or three Brussels Sprouts. Reasonably, the gold chevron in the centre signifies Miss Middleton’s mother, whose maiden name was Goldsmith, while the tied ribbon shows she is an unmarried woman. The white chevronels are a little more worrying as they symbolise mountains, representing the family’s love of the Lake District and skiing. Well, my family loved Southend-on-Sea and jellied eels so it’s probably a good thing that I never married into royalty. Give thanks, then, that the Middletons didn’t love train journeys and children’s books or Prince William would be struggling to maintain his credibility whilst sporting the smiling face of Ivor the Engine on his stationery.
Well, to me it all seems like a bit of a do rather than the solemn preparation of the future king of England for the serious business of knocking out an heir. And, in line with the celebrity status of the event, George Michael will sing You and I to the happy couple, demonstrating that it’s OK these days to have a pop star with a criminal conviction for using drugs taking centre stage at a royal wedding party that around two billion viewers watched from across the globe. I smell the faint perfume of republic in the air.
So tomorrow I’ll be finding the reflections in a pint of Adnam’s excellent bitter far more enjoyable and, in these troubled times, far more relevant than wall-to-wall nuptials. But I will raise my glass to them at one point.
Here’s to William and Kate – may they have health and happiness.
*After writing this piece it was announced that the official titles bestowed upon them are ‘Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’.
When the general election was imminent last year I had a nose around the alternative attractions on offer to see if there was a party on the edge of mainline politics that appeared to have merit and which might seduce me into parting company with my important vote. It turned out that there was little choice unless one felt inspired or obliged on principle to support a marginal idea from a marginal group. And marginal they were, with policies that ranged from pensioner’s rights or the legalisation of marijuana to the eradication of socialism. If you’re interested, you can read it here. My reasons for exploring political new ground had a lot to do with my disgust at the collective behaviour of many of our elected public servants who believed that, once in Westminster, they were above the law and had to do little more than be photographed opening fetes or awarding Women’s Institute prizes. Despite my imploring [and boring] everyone I met in the pub, the market or on the street on a Sunday morning that they vote for an alternative my incumbent Member was returned. Amazingly, he managed it with a slightly increased majority, which I couldn’t understand at all given that he had used a huge amount of his parliamentary expenses to landscape his garden. That should have been enough to have him dragged out of town behind a buckboard but all I could do was try to vote the bugger out. Regrettably, there was no viable alternative and a significant number of my fellow constituents clearly felt the same way; so I guess he’ll have seen that as a mandate to carry on landscaping. The point is, my vote was wasted and I knew it was when I cast it. My constituency, like many in the country, is a ‘safe seat’ and our voting system only requires the candidate to get the highest number of votes, not a majority, to win. Had that not been the case perhaps more people would have voted against the expected victor and he may now be on unemployment benefit. Actually, somewhere around 71% of all votes cast in the 2010 election disappeared down the same plughole according to the Institute for Public Policy Research [ippr]. That’s 21 million or so across the country. Now we’re nearly a year down the road, the coalition is deeply into its juggling act of fulfilling election promises that can’t be fulfilled, public institutions say they are about to collapse and the proletariat is on the streets. Frustrating, eh?
None of this should come as a surprise in a system that meant me and 20,999,999 other people might as well have been line dancing as queuing at the local polling station last May. We trust politicians less and less and they grow more complacent. They are rarely as open, earnest or honest as they tell us they are and, after all, the quality of their political footwork is measured by the success of the inevitable compromise.
I have a lot of time for Nick Clegg and I share his pain. He clearly understands the need for compromise and, as an honest bloke with a fair measure of political integrity, he seems to strive to acknowledge other points of view. That was why he was so successful in the televised debates prior to the election last year. Unfortunately, he probably didn’t foresee any real possibility of being in government – let alone being deputy Prime Minister – or he might have been more circumspect about what he promised. He now finds himself in the most unenviable of positions by being a government minister on the one hand and a Liberal Democrat on the other; pragmatism versus idealism. A perpetual and, for the foreseeable future, hopeless state of compromise. This means that his every move is seized upon as either demonstrating a lack of credibility through supplicating to the Conservative majority or a betrayal of Liberal Democratic principles. Well, life in government is tough and sometimes you just can’t win. So you have to compromise.
But Nick Clegg’s best compromise yet might just be the start of something that improves on the nonsense we had last year. The Liberal Democrats declared in their manifesto that they would fight for proportional representation [PR]. They haven’t got that but, on 5 May, we are invited to vote in a referendum on changing the current voting system to alternative vote [AV]. No, it’s not what the Liberal Democrats really want [nor the ‘safe seat’ guys, either, for that matter] and not what Clegg is charged to deliver but, in pragmatic terms, it’s an acceptable compromise and it may just be the first step on the way to PR. So now I find myself with the opportunity – at last – of avoiding my vote being wasted while helping to impose a degree of accountability on the Member we send to Westminster.
So I’ll vote for a ‘yes’ and – to the other 20 million plus voters out there whose votes had less effect than those cast for American Idol – I advocate support for this first, small change to the current ‘first past the post’ voting system, which disenfranchises the majority of us and allows complacent, self-serving and frequently pompous individuals to cruise the gravy train to Westminster. AV is certainly not perfect and perhaps it will be uncomfortable for politicians who worry more about their careers than the interests of the people they are supposed to represent. A move to AV will be a first step towards changing that.
Even though I’m in England just now it’s been hard to avoid noticing stuff happening in Sweden. Last week was all about individual protest against society and crystallised in two events.
In the north the small town of Ytterhogdal received a protest from one of its local bears. Clearly dissatisfied with the municipal facilities provided by the local council it left the woods, the usual repository for the aftermath of an afternoon spent gorging itself on lingonberries, worms, snails and the like, to take a huge dump on the town hall steps. I’ve often had cause to berate my local councillors for poor service but haven’t yet summoned up the courage to show them exactly what I felt about them so Ursus arctos arctos has become something of a hero to me. Local experts believe that the bear was, indeed, a very large one and confirmed that they usually do their business in the woods. Something must have upset this one to make it change its routine. There are about 2000 bears in Sweden and if they are all upset we’ll have to wear rubber boots when we visit the council offices so I am eagerly watching to see if the municipal services in Ytterhogdal and elsewhere improve. By the way, the pic is of an American Brown Bear that I took in Canada last year – I wonder how they view municipal facilities in Vancouver.
In the south it was far more serious. The pleasant but sleepy Malmö is our nearest city and is normally pretty quiet. Just recently, however, it has been likened to Chicago in the 1920s. The slight shift in the political climate at the recent general election saw the ascendancy of the right-wing Social-Democrats, whose anti-immigration views have been used to explain, with questionable conviction, the possible reason for a series of shootings that have occurred over the past year or so. The ‘perp’, thought to be an individual with a personal view on Sweden’s relaxed attitude towards immigration, has been randomly shooting at people of Asian and Middle-Eastern appearance. This resulted in a death and several injuries together with headlines about residents and visitors to the city living in fear of their lives. To be honest, walking across Stortorget was more about avoiding detritus from McDonalds and Burger King than dodging sniper’s bullets, but nonetheless, the story provided a sinister backdrop to parochial life. A suspect has been arrested, apparently after an anonymous tip-off. Perhaps that came from the local underworld, characters from which have been working in parallel with the police in hunting down the gunman. I assume this liaison was a temporary arrangement arising from the underworld’s belief that it has sole rights over dispensing suitable justice on its patch and that it will now get back to controlling the taxi service, kebab-stall franchises and immigrant gangs that are a part of daily life in Malmö.
Reports in the local press have surprised me. There has been mention of ‘racial tension’ but this doesn’t seem apparent from the point of view of a casual observer over twenty-something years. The population certainly has a high proportion of immigrants – I’ve heard 50% reported but once did a headcount from a downtown café and reckoned on it being higher – but the ‘tension’ and trouble seemed to be confined to internecine disputes.
Of course, Sweden is rightly held in high esteem for its tolerance as well as its adoption of an open immigration policy and tolerant it is. But tolerance should not be confused with integration. Despite the population of Malmö having such a high number of non-Swedish inhabitants there is a sullen and silent resentment among the natives. It’s civilised and cultured to be racially tolerant and that’s how Swedes want to see themselves but scratch the surface and a very different complexion is apparent, unless they’re talking about an international footballer or cash-in-hand labour, that is. In the past few days the Malmö Police issued a statement stating that the suspect was being questioned about a series of immigrant shootings and that they had ‘no explanation for why they were shot’. Er, nothing to do with their ethnicity, then? A Professor of Criminology, would you believe, was quoted as saying that the debate about the Social-Democrat’s views could destabilise those who were suffering from ‘mental illness, on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ and who might go off on a shooting spree as a result. That appears to me to be a typical Swedish rationalisation of the first magnitude.
Isn’t the first step of recovery from being alcoholic admitting you’re a drunk? Why hasn’t anyone said out loud what Swedes in Malmö whisper – that they generally resent the number of immigrants and, right or wrong, that in itself might be the shooter’s justification. Perhaps some more honesty is needed and perhaps a process of integration, as opposed to immigration, is required. The Malmö district of Rosengård has a lot to commend it but nearly all its inhabitants are of a non-Swedish background and it has frequently been the scene of considerable civic unrest; the adjacent Malmö mosque, for example, was burnt down in 2003. Rosengård provided cheap housing and cheap accommodation was offered to immigrants. Surprisingly, local Swedes moved out in droves. So, Rosengård is a modern facility, near the centre of the city with new low-cost accommodation and no native Swedes want to live there. As a microcosm of Swedish society it remains an enclave that actually serves to segregate rather than integrate – and, in true Swedish fashion, it’s tolerated as long as you don’t have to go there.
It seems to me that if Sweden is going to cure the ‘mental illness’ that manifested itself in the manner we’ve been witnessing then the government has to start treating integration in a more holistic way, as a concern relating to society as a whole, not just one of immigration.
I love this time of year – almost but not quite autumn; the mists, damp mornings, the smells of the meadows and woodland that aren’t here at any other time; the earthy richness of the land. Today we picked our first blackberries and gathered the first fallen apples for a pie with lunch in a little ritual that we undertake each year; a private affair that celebrates the harvest and the year’s promise of closing down for the winter. I’ve had people tell me that autumn is depressing because it signifies the end of the year and that the shortening days are no reason for celebration but I’ve never felt that. For me it’s an evocative time, a rich and essential part in the process of renewal. So it’s always been important, in a way I can’t explain, to acknowledge these subtle markers of the changing seasons as signs of continuity; proof that life renews itself and is ongoing.
I guess it’s an aspect of the human psyche to take continuity for granted so long as the path travelled is relatively smooth and the direction it follows relatively agreeable. Sometimes, however, life delivers a blow that forces you to stop and draw breath, like it did for me this week. So the sojourn to Cannes is cancelled and I find myself in England, spending a lot of time standing outside in wet, long grass, looking at the changing season and thinking far too deeply about the frailty of existence.
I lost someone very dear to me this week and the hardest thing to comprehend is that the world didn’t stop.
I’ve just spent the day with a good man in a charming place called Cley-next-the-Sea, which is a picturesque village in north Norfolk. I’ve been there many times before – more than I could possibly remember actually – since my first visit in the early 1960s, although it’s been about twelve years since I was last there and that was just a drive-by.
If you take any interest in birds or birding then you’ll know about this place, but for any readers that don’t I can tell you that it’s perhaps the most significant of avian locations in England. Due to its location and the variety of surrounding habitats it receives an extraordinary number of rarities so, at one time or another, every birder who takes his or her craft seriously makes the pilgrimage to Cley. Many birders have even moved there.
Cley is a pretty village, with many houses constructed using the local flint cobbles, a fine medieval church and a famous windmill but it has changed a lot over the years. Although it was warm and sunny today the bittersweet scent of nostalgia hung in the air. Now whether or not that was nostalgia for a carefree youth spent wandering unrestricted in Britain’s wild places or sadness at the changes progress imposes on places one’s come to love I haven’t yet worked out. Nevertheless, there was something about the traffic queues, gourmet food, missing Post Office and improved properties – and in all fairness there were some beautifully renovated properties to see – that didn’t sit well with me.
Although Simon had given me directions, I drove into Cley from memory. The single-track lanes and hamlets became increasingly familiar the nearer I got to the sea and as I arrived I waived a hearty ‘Good morning’ to a lady walking her dogs. When I asked if I was on the correct road her response was more than helpful and provided me with a lot more information than I needed about the church, the village green and the lanes I should use. But she spoke to me in the friendly manner and singular Norfolk twang that told me she was local. Compare that to the couple further along. Despite their worldly appearance, tailored shorts and London accents, they could barely make eye contact to acknowledge my ‘morning’ as I eased past them beside the churchyard wall. These days Cley, like many of the surrounding villages, has a great many holiday or weekend homes and is often described as ‘Chelsea-on-sea’. Around half the properties in the village remain unoccupied for part of the year. The population of Cley remains at something around 380, less than half what it was in its heyday, but the village supports art and ceramic galleries, antique shops, restaurants, a smokehouse and a pretty robust delicatessen. Plenty of places to shop if you’re up from town, no? Not so interesting if you are a local kid and want a home.
In the days when I first made the journey north it was desolate, wild and informal. It was mostly cold, too and often really very cold. I loved the place. Information on what or who ‘was about’ was obtained from a hand-written notebook in Billy Bishop’s hut [actually the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s [NWT] hut; he was their warden for over forty years] above Arnold’s Marsh or pinned to the wall in The George Hotel, so those were essential ports of call at some time during the day depending on when you arrived there. Billy’s hut is now an ‘environmentally friendly’ visitors’ centre. If you’d arrived to ‘twitch’ a particular bird then you’d have received a telephone call and consequently had to know the area or know who to ask to get at it. It was a more innocent time, before personal communications took hold; free of e-mail, mobile phones, pagers and satnavs. Getting to see your bird then was more of a hit-and-miss affair than it is today, when GPS coordinates will pinpoint an exact tree for you. It was also more of an adventure. If the weather was fine you’d pause in the walk down the East Bank towards the sea and catch up with gossip through friends, acquaintances or anyone else in a bobble-hat and rubber boots carrying binoculars. Back then we just wanted to keep warm and our uniform was more or less standard; it would be a while before today’s efficient clothes and designer footwear offered us the opportunity to ‘twitch’ a Cream-coloured Courser and make a fashion statement. Access wasn’t that good but you could park fairly near to where you wanted to be and it was free. Now the High Street is a car park most of the time and if you don’t keep your windows shut as you creep along someone will try to take three quid off you.
And you had to take your victuals with you then as there were no award-winning delis or organic vegetarian restaurants. That’s where I learned to like warmish soup from a thermos and dry cheese sandwiches even if my palette is a little more sophisticated these days.
But the birds are there, the first rule of nostalgia still being that nothing is as good as it used to be. We didn’t do much birding but watched a resting Barn Owl from the garden, then Whimbrels and Little Egrets on the marsh. Four-wheel drives or not, Cley will still keep delivering.